• Paul Cumbo

How do we arrange the chairs?

Anyone who practices public speaking knows that content is only one component. Body language, pacing, pausing, tone, and movement matter just as much.

In teaching, where public speaking, presentation, and engaging in Socratic dialog are daily routines, there's another vital consideration: How do we arrange the chairs?

Consider one classroom. It has rows, columns, a podium, and a projector. There's a clear hierarchy--a central focal point: the teacher, who stands in front and above, likely "teaching to."

Now consider the circle. The teacher is seated with the students--literally at their level. A fellow learner. It brings to mind phrases like "collaborative learning." Some in my field will roll their eyes at this term, because it sounds cute, and therefore trendy. Except that it works too well to be cute or trendy. And there's nothing new about it, either.

There's a time for rows and there's a time for circles. But in my sixteenth year of teaching, rows are the rare exception. Engineers know that spheres and circles are physically stronger than angled intersections. Pressure gets distributed more efficiently. Extreme depth submarine capsules are spherical. Airplane windows are rounded for a reason. One older design used square windows. Cracks emerged at the structural stress points where the corners met the fuselage. I find that the circle is a far stronger shape for education, too--for all kinds of reasons, our "digital disconnect" not least among them.

Which brings us to a bigger question: Are we using rows in other aspects of our professional or personal lives, when we should be using circles?

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